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Monolithic domes: Energy efficient, spacious, and nearly indestructible.

A few years ago, I spotted a domed home on the cover of a magazine. It was a futuristic-looking house called Eye of the Storm, built on Sullivans Island, South Carolina for a family whose previous home had been destroyed by a hurricane. They were searching for a safe haven, and they got it.

I live in Florida, and I'm no stranger to hurricanes, so my interest was piqued. I wanted to learn more about this unusual-looking structure and what I discovered was amazing. I found out that these one-piece steel reinforced concrete homes, known as monolithic domes, can not only withstand the fiercest storms, they are also energy-efficient, easy to maintain, virtually fireproof and designed to last for centuries. Sounded like a good investment to me.

I visited the Monolithic Dome Institute's web site at to learn more, and it wasn't too long before I decided to take the plunge myself. I began building my own dome home in the Florida panhandle, on a picturesque spot overlooking the Bay of St. Joe. I was always interested in remodeling -- I was the kind of kid who liked to fix things -- so I felt up to the challenge.

I didn't do too badly. We christened our dome home Bayrock, and now that my family has lived in our dome home for two years, I can honestly say that monolithic domes are the best alternative for homesteaders interested in living in harmony with mother nature and conserving natural resources. We even built a second dome next door. You may have never heard of a monolithic dome, and even if you have, you might not know all the advantages of this truly unique type of structure.

Monolithic domes are designed to emulate one of nature's most efficient designs in terms of strength: the egg. David B. South, the visionary behind concrete dome architecture likes to speak in terms of centuries, not decades, when referring to the life of a monolithic dome.

Consider the following comparison between a dome and a typically constructed stick-and-brick single-family dwelling. Few people know it, but concrete actually takes about a hundred years to fully cure and reach its maximum strength. The economic life of traditional stick-and-brick is usually no more than 60 to 70 years at most. That means a dome will just be hitting its stride long after the rest of the neighborhood has deteriorated. What's more, a wood frame home will weigh between 30 to 40 tons on average. Bayrock, where I hang my hat, weighs over 300 tons.

That considerable heft, the unique shape and its structural integrity are three principal reasons why monolithic domes can withstand winds up to 400 miles per hour. The devastation of Hurricane Andrew provides a good example. Its winds gusted as high as 150 miles per hour. Much of South Florida was wiped out, and traditionally constructed homes were reduced to twisted rubble. Whole neighborhoods in the direct path of the storm all but disappeared. But as murderously destructive as Andrew was, it would not have dented a dome, and that unfortunate tragedy serves to illustrate the advantages of these virtually indestructible structures. It simply is hard not to rest easier in an energy-efficient home that termites can't eat, water can't rot, fire can't burn and a hurricane can't knock down.

Despite their durability, the construction of a monolithic dome is surprisingly straight-forward. After plumbing and electrical conduits are in place, a round foundation of the desired diameter is poured. This circular slab features special anchors around the perimeter that hold in place what is called the Airform, an inflatable balloon made of single-ply roofing material.

Once in place, the Airform is inflated to create the shape of the dome. The inside of the Airform is then sprayed with a polyurethane insulation material in several stages, with the final thickness totaling about three inches. Next, a grid of steel rebar is placed into the foam. At this point the inside of your dome will resemble the biggest birdcage ever seen.

Finally, the rebar grid is covered with a two-to-three inch layer of Shotcrete, the final step in the creation of the energy-efficient, super-durable monolithic dome, a structure that is truly monolithic and very different from the geodesic dome. The Airform remains in place to serve as the structure's waterproof outer shell.

Domes do take some getting used to. Look outside and you will see square buildings. If you are inside, chances are you are sitting in a square room. The fact is, we live in a square-building world, and that is how just about everybody has grown accustomed to things being. Building a dome will make you different, Essentially, you'll be putting a round peg in a square hole, and you, and all your friends, will have to get acclimated to the new surroundings.

It doesn't take long. Our dome home is a domination concrete pseudodome and conventional framed porches. The concrete dome structure has approximately 4,000 square feet of living area divided into a combination kitchen/living area, second level living area, and four bedrooms with walk-in closets in each and four full baths. Following are just a few advantages my family now enjoys living in this home.

Protection: Andrew didn't hit us, but our part of Florida did not escape Hurricane George. During that storm I took a call from the best general contractor in the area. He wanted to bring his family to Bayrock if it turned out a mandatory evacuation was required. He had watched the dome being built and noted the amount of rebar and concrete that went into the construction. He knew Bayrock was designed to withstand winds up to 400 miles per hour. The man was an excellent builder himself, but he wanted to bring his family to my house. Need I say more?

Energy efficiency: The winters here are mild, with temperatures outside dipping into the 20s only briefly, so we did not see the need to heat the structure. That decision was a moneysaver. The inside temperature remains a steady 70 degrees all winter long.

The following example will help illustrate the comfort our dome home affords during the occasionally chilly winter months. Our oldest daughter was dressing for school one morning. She picked out shorts and a light-weight shirt. She was astounded when she ventured outside discovering the temperature had dropped well into the 20s overnight. Needless to say, she now opens a window to verify weather conditions before deciding what to wear.

Bayrock is all electric and our monthly utility costs average about $80 including the water bill. Florida can get hot, but we make very limited use of several window air-conditioning units in the sultry summer days. On average, our electric bill only rises by $20 a month during the hot months.

We feel a little like trendsetters, but domes are far more common than many people might think. They can be found in environs stretching from north of the Arctic Circle to just south of the equator. The concrete exterior and layer of polyurethane insulation are the keys to success in both sub-zero temperatures and searing tropical heat.

Something else is worth noting. No matter how high the construction quality, extreme heat or cold eventually corrodes metals and gets the better of organic: building materials. But concrete and plastic not only combine to create tremendous energy efficiency, they also have virtually infinite lifespans.

Self-sufficiency: The dome's high energy efficiency is the primary reason we can be completely self-sufficient, should the need ever arise. We have our own well and generator, and if there ever was a power outage, we could provide ourselves with the basic necessities.

Low maintenance: Very little goes wrong with a dome home. My folks have had to replace their roof twice in the past four years due to hail damage, and the replacement costs totaled more than $20,000 both times. We will never have a roof to replace. Our windows and porches are made of wood, which may require attention over time. But overall, we feel the home is as close to being maintenance-free as possible.

Low cost: The last reason we built our dome home may be the best reason of all. Building costs in our area range from about $80 to as high as $200 per square foot. The total cost of our home, including the interior furnishings and a lot more amenities than the typical home in the area, was around $88 per square foot. In essence, we got a sturdier home that is cheaper to maintain for less than what a conventionally built house would have cost.

Building your dream dome

If you do decide to build your own dome home, it is practically essential that you attend one of the Monolithic Dome Institute's workshops. The five-day workshop in Italy, Texas includes both hands-on training and comprehensive classroom instruction. And it isn't just theory. Participants actually build a Monolithic Dome by applying the principles learned in class. Past attendees have included people who want to build their own dome homes, as well as professional contractors who want to build and market domes for others.

If you aren't a hearty do-it-yourselfer, the Monolithic Dome Institute can put you in touch with any number of experienced dome home builders. They can even provide you with a custom design. Another alternative is to order a MonoKit to give to a general contractor. The MonoKit includes pre-designed blueprints that are energy efficient, comfortable and affordable.

A dome can usually be constructed in six to eight weeks. The most time-consuming aspect of completing a dome is the interior work, which ranges from three to six months. Monolithic Domes comply with and often exceed all standard building codes in every category. Just ask your local building inspector which national building code he or she uses, and then inquire whether any local variations have been added.

A virtual tour of Bayrock

I'd like to take you on a virtual tour of Bayrock, and by the time we're done, you too might be sold on monolithic domes.

The primary level has a living area and kitchen, combined with a two-sided fireplace that opens to one of the two bedrooms on the first level. What is unique about this structure, particularly in this coastal region, is that all living can be done on the primary level without negotiating stairs.

The back porch is approximately 900 square feet and is enclosed with over 60 lineal feet of eight-foot sliding glass doors. Cloudless mornings bring a spectacular sunrise, complete with water that sparkles brighter than any jewel. We've witnessed bald eagles diving down and plucking 20-inch sea trout from the water's surface. We monitor a family of deer that reside in the marshes, and we can get up close and personal with a friendly local raccoon that can frequently be seen meandering by.

The front porch is screened and approximately 750 square feet. Many a summer's evening has been spent watching the sun set over the tree line from this splendid vantage point.

The second level could be used for guests -- and believe me, if you build a dome, you will be entertaining a steady stream of curious overnight visitors. The second level has a large living area with two bedrooms, allowing your friends to relax in bed while enjoying an unobstructed view of the morning sunrise over the bay. Each bedroom also has natural light emulating from what is called a "sola-tube," which is a high-tech skylight that allows sunlight in while minimizing the heat associated with traditional roof windows.

We have a cupola that can be accessed via the large living area on the second floor. It is a one-of-a-kind addition made especially for our home. As many as eight visitors can relax inside and enjoy a breathtaking 360-degree view of the ocean and bay. Anyone wishing to cast their cares aside need only step into this panoramic room for an instant spiritual renaissance.

The cupola also serves a very utilitarian function in regulating the interior temperature of the dome. The air flows over the structure and creates a vacuum, literally venting air out of the home through the cupola. This same feature is found in middle eastern structures that endure the blistering desert conditions without air-conditioning.

The heat is provided passively based on the principle of mass and average temperatures for the region. For folks who have never experienced passive heating and only know the typical forced air heating systems, the difference could be likened to the quality and performance difference between a race car and a Yugo. Cold spots are eliminated, and germs or molds are not circulated through the home ventilation system.

Domes may not be for everyone, but Bayrock turned out to be perfect for me and my family. The security features of the architectural style have afforded me a peace of mind never before experienced in any type of traditionally constructed house. Upkeep is virtually nonexistent and maintenance costs are lower than any other house I've owned. And I expect that it will be my best, not to mention most enduring, investment.

For more information about monolithic domes, visit the Monolithic Dome Institute's web site at <>.

Monolithic dome plans

Monolithic Dome Institute has, hot offf the press, a fantastic new book of house plans -- Dome Living: A Creative Guide For Planning Your Monolithic Dream Home. This 160-page book includes over 115 house plans, color pictures of homes, and instruction on how to design Monolithic Dome Homes. For more information write to: Monolithic Domes, PO Box 479, Italy, TX 76651; ph (972) 483-7423. Please visit domeliving/for more information and to order.
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Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:May 1, 2000
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